Monsieur Hulot curiously wanders around a high-tech Paris, paralleling a trip with a group of American tourists. Meanwhile, a nightclub/restaurant prepares its opening night, but it's still under construction.
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Charles Le Clainche,
Monsieur Hulot has to contact an American official in Paris, but he gets lost in the maze of modern architecture which is filled with the latest technical gadgets. Caught in the tourist invasion, Hulot roams around Paris with a group of American tourists, causing chaos in his usual manner. Written by
Leon Wolters <wolters@strw.LeidenUniv.nl>
The issue of viewing a film in the right format has seldom been more pressing than with this film. Although I've only seen it on DVD, it shows immediately that it's best seen in the original 70mm format on the biggest screen possible, because of the numerous subtle sight gags on screen, that go largely unnoticed when watching it on a regular TV-set. A treatment equally essential for films like "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "Lawrence of Arabia". Unless living in London, Paris, New York, or a few other places, chances of seeing this in the proper way in the foreseeable future are slim for most of us, so one has to cope with whatever is available.
At the time, "Play Time" was the most expensive French film ever made. Tati built an enormous set outside Paris, that included an airline terminal, city streets, high rise buildings and traffic circles, that was soon dubbed "Tativille". Three years in the making, experiencing numerous setbacks and financial difficulties and combined with Tati's perfectionist way of filming, the project could only have been saved - financially that is - if the film was an enormous success. It wasn't and "Play Time" bankrupted Tati, forcing him to sell the rights of all his films for little more than a fee.
Tati shot the entire film in medium-long and long shots, not one close-up. The result is a bewildering pastiche of people on their daily do-abouts in modern Paris (the old Paris, like the Eiffel Tower, is only seen through reflections in the glass facades) amidst flickering neon signs, voices through intercoms, buzzers, and through all this, Monsieur Hulot tries to find his way while stumbling across the urban frenzy surrounding him. The film is virtually dialog-free, and mainly serves as background noise. When watching a film by Tati, you expect Monsieur Hulot. Well, he is present in almost every frame, but he is nothing close to a real character, which is probably one of the reasons audiences didn't connect with the film. On an another level, the sight and sound gags abound. It's not particularly funny in a laugh-out-loud sense, but each viewing seems to reveal a new unseen joke or small detail, a funny sign or a person in the background, not seen before. Most of the gags only work because they are part of a carefully orchestrated ensemble. At the core, the kind of humor is the same as in "Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot" or "Mon Oncle", but here, the jokes are more subtle. It's an enormous canvas where there's so much going on, it's fascinating to look at, but can be a bit tiring after a while. However, the long party scene at the restaurant, when the crowds befall in a collective euphoria, is priceless.
I think for most people, it's all a little too much upon first viewing and in many ways it remains a bit of a folly, a director gone mad in making a film no audience was ripe for at the time, and perhaps never will be. Assesing this film by some of the more conventional qualities one can look for in a film is not a very useful approach in case of this film. Tati certainly made something completely unique. If anything, a work of art that poses more than a few challenges.
Camera Obscura --- 9/10
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